Why We Must Deconstruct Our Own Work

In Part 1 and Part 2 we took a look at what happened in Oz and why it’s just so dratted sad.  Essentailly, Oz suffers from a fourth wall blindness.  Everything takes place solely in the story, and it is not at all self aware of it’s own attitude.  The writers are fully immersed in Oscar’s story.  And you know, that’s understandable.  That’s why in these articles, I usually bash the story and not the writers.  It’s their job to be in that story.

But it’s also, their job to be above their story, too.  To be aware of the things their story is saying, beyond just the scripted words and actions.  Writers need to be self-aware of their work.  This is why we studied books and stories like “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” in school – so we could see examples of authors who knew exactly what the hell they were saying in the spaces between the lines.

 

Maybe a little more thought to it than this, but you get the idea.

Oz, and movies/books like it is why we need to deconstruct our own work.  I like to think that if the creators had realized what kind of movie they were actually making, they would have taken it in a different direction.  They would have said “Shit son, that’s not what we want to say.” and maybe actually turned the wicked witch angle on it’s head and put her on Glinda’s side.  Or Oscar would have actually realized what he’d done and sincerely apologized (recall, he never said “I’m sorry”, only acknowledged that it wasn’t Theodora’s fault) before he got the kiss from Glinda.

Just like Riddick, there were so many other options, just as awesome and exciting, and still with the fun(??) plot twists of “is he dead!?  Did he really leave!?” which could have saved the narrative of this movie.  But it’s like no one saw the problem… and that’s a problem.

I understand.  It’s scary to look at your work with the same eye that you would use in your English classes and really dig into what your subconscious has thrown in there.  You might find something you don’t like – such as an internalized romanticizing of rape, or that everyone who dies just happens to be female or male, or that all your villains are black, or fat, or disfigured, or asian, or that you’ve inadvertanly implied through the entire arc of your plot that all women besides your main, strong female character, are idiots, or crazy, or illogical.

It happens.  I found every single one of those in The Athele Series at some point.  Some of it is what you mean to say but not how you meant to say it. (Morgan intentionally disdains other women… but I didn’t mean to imply that the others who show up in the story aren’t of worth!).  Some of it is pure lazy writing or tunnel vision on my own words (Um, no, I most certainly did not mean to not have that woman not fight her rapist. That line about inevitability was not meant to be read that way!!).  Some of it is just assumption (no.  the man doesn’t always have to die to throw things into chaos, duh.) and some of it is just how you read the books before the one you wrote (you know, the bad guys in real life are often shockingly plain.)

The point is that you won’t know until you look.  Finding these things in your writing does not make you a bad person, nor does accidentally writing them, over and over.  That’s not what makes a bad writer.  Writing without mind, assuming that your words will come across exactly as you meant them to every single person from so many walks of life… that makes a bad writer.

Find a friend who can read from a standpoint entirely different from yours, who is practiced at reading mindfully.  I have two major ones (not including Michael), and they have pointed all of the above scenarios out to me, and discussed at length whether it’s a function of the story, or an unfortunate mistake in implication.  Write mini dissertations as to the deeper meaning of your work, your main character’s mind-set, your villain’s features and motivation.  Not only will it show you what your story is saying in the subtext, it will make for a stronger story.  Condense scenes and plots into one or two sentences.  Several times, focusing on different elements.

Have you done this?  Have you ever found distressing things hidden in the subtext of your writing?  What was the worst one?

Oz, Part 2

In Part one we discussed how Oz fails at making anything not about it’s protagonist.  It’s not just that everything the women do is focused or affected by Oscar though.  The worst part for me was the absolute fawning over Oscar’s womanizing.

In the beginning, Oscar decieves three women.  The ‘magician’s assistant’ the strongman’s assistant (off screen), and the girl he let get away.  He’s shown to be playing with the two assistants, and actually cares for the other girl, enough to let her go.

Aw.

Not.

Because then he shouts, as the Tornado is sucking him in “I can be good!  I can change!  Just give me a chance!!”

And then he gets to Oz and he seduces Theodora with no intention on following through, first thing.

Great change there, bud.

It somehow manages to get worse.  Oscar’s seduction of Theodora was inelegant at best, but ok, sure, maybe she was taken in.  I’ll accept it.  But it just never lets up on that tangent.  Evanora uses his deception as a base to trick Theodora into the apple (I’ll give this to the creators, the little nods to Fairy Tales were nice).  Then, when Theodora realizes that she’s been tricked and misled, her sister is the evil one, is the one that was hurting the people she professed in the beginning to care so much for… she decides to hate Oscar some more?

Priority issues.

Excuse me, what?  Ok, sure I’d still be mad at the misleading bastard, but wouldn’t burning all the love out of you mean you no longer had loyalty to your sister who just fucked you over and turned you into a horrible creature?  I mean, shit, this was the part of the movie where even my mother, who doesn’t automatically deconstruct these movies like I do, went “Wait.  What just happened?” and I had to admit that I had no idea.

And then to top it all off, at the very end, when Oscar has sent the sisters running, and Evanora is defeated by Glinda, and hooray!  Just as Theodora is flying off on her broom, he says, all solemn like “I know this evil wasn’t of your own making…” and is all extending the olive branch of peace.  When it was his deception that hurt her, and his running off that set her off, and his duplicity with seducing her and then being all happy with Glinda that made it so easy for Evanora to fuck with her sister.  Evanora provided Theodora the apple, but Oscar might as well have hand fed it to her.

And at the end, he has the audacity to say “This evil was not of your own making”?!

What.  The.  Fuck.  

Damn right it wasn’t of her making!  It was yours!  And there is nothing to indicate he takes responsibility for it.  In essence, Oscar pulls the same shit (after promising to change, no less), but instead of learning his lesson, he’s rewarded.  

In character, yes, Oscar doesn’t know why exactly Theodora turned.  And neither does Glinda.  Which is probably why she gives him the traditional Hero’s Journey kiss at the end (fuck my life -.-) instead of telling him to fuck off when he invites her into a back room.

But just like Riddick, we’re not talking about the characters while they are in plot.  We are talking about them in a meta fashion – a magnifying glass through the fourth wall.  Oscar in the end, is a terrible character not only for what he does, but for what he doesn’t do.  Who is he at the end that he wasn’t at the beginning?  What growth does he actually demonstrate?  Worst of all, what does Oscar’s absolute lack of punishment for his deception of Theodora, thus creating a terrible villain for Oz to deal with later, and indeed, even being rewarded for his vanquishing of the villain he made say?

Nothing good, I hope we can all agree.

Now, you could try to argue this from the point that the movie was actually a warning about warring over a man.

Wait.  No, you can’t.  Because Oscar won, the day was saved, and the protagonist got the girl and learned that he was stronger than he ever believed.

Why?  Because he’s the good guy.  Duh.

Did this annoy you as much as it did me?  Sorry about all the cursing, but this is seriously skewed, and I figured it could benefit from a little strong language.  Part 3 will discuss what we can do with this amazing lack of self awareness in the story.

Reviews and How to Handle Them…

So, Pandora’s Ring got a 2 star review.

My first reaction was “WAAAAAAAAAAH. WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?” and lots of other mewling, moaning and otherwise carrying on.  It wasn’t particularly pretty and I’m not exactly proud of it.

Ok, to be totally honest with you all here, I didn’t really even read the review.  I saw the star rating and went “Nope.  Not reading.  Not now.”

So then I asked a friend to read it for me and tell me how bad it really was.

And now I wish I’d read that review a lot earlier.

You see, the reviewer (a friend of mine from college) had some really good points to make, and while the book only got two stars, it was backed up with a long, in depth review of what worked, and what I had been missing.  It was funny, reading it, because most of the stuff she said was things I’d heard before, from a variety of people, and they were all true.  There was lots of truthy truth, and really making it clear what the weaknesses in my writing were.

A blow to my ego?  Sure.  Yeah.

Invaluable critiscism?  Oh hell yes.

While I can’t go in and take her points into account on Sword’s Blessings (the file is already finished and populated into it’s digital book format.) I can go ahead and start fixing it right now in the third book, and I can take it in account while continuing work on The Athele Series.  I’ve also asked her to serve as a critical reader so that I can utilize her eye for plot and character.

Now, it’s not that I’m not disappointed with myself that dang it, that’s a two star review, and that’s really not a shiny thing.  However, I have to remind myself: this is the pregame.  Pandora’s Ring is not the end.  So long as I keep writing, and keep listening to reviewers and not letting my ego make me ignore these things, it’s not over.  Writing is like running.  It’s not about the one run, on that one night, or even that one race on that one day.  It’s about the long run, and it’s not over until I stop writing and give up.

So how do you deal with critiscism?

Tidbit Thursday, 10/17/13

Hello, people of the world!  It’s time again for another Tidbit!  Question for this week: “What is your favorite tag to add to your posts?”

The prompt for this week is #52: “Taste.”  Enjoy!

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The little boy watched in curiosity as the monstrosity took a delicate lick at the yellowed substance on her finger.  “Does it taste good?”

“Hideous, but that’s the point.  It’s why he died like that.”

“So… you’re eating for a horrible taste?”

“More or less.  You think we hunt your kind because we’re hungry?  Impossible.  We’re dead: the only thing we hunger for is sensation.  What the sensation is, exactly, is meaningless.”

Lazy Character Development

A week or so ago, Michael and I saw Riddick.

I wasn’t expecting a lot – it’s a Riddick film after all.  He kicks some ass, survives the odds, maybe trades witty banter if we’re lucky.  I mean, I love Riddick.  First of all, Vin Diesel is hot.  Second, Riddick’s eyes are freaking awesome.  Third, I’m a sucker for big ol survival stories.

I wasn’t expecting like, earth shaking revelations or awe inspiring speeches.  I wasn’t expecting fantastic characters and depth from every secondary person I met.

However, I also wasn’t expecting everyone we met besides Riddick to be a straight up trope.  There was the ‘praying boy wonder’ the ‘evil but stupid’ the ‘raped female prisoner’ and of course, my favorite, ‘the strong female character’ .

Let’s be clear.  I don’t have a problem with tropes, in many cases.  Tropes and cliches are tropes and cliches for a reason.  The problem is when an author leans on the trope to do their character development for them.  No, being in a movie does not, in any way, excuse the writers for the fact that I could predict evil guy’s next move – not because I understood who he was and what his motivations were, but because the trope dictated that it would be his next move.  Can’t get the girl the first time?  Insult her!  Can’t get her a second?  Attempt to rape her!  Of course!  Praying boy shall pray, because that’s what we expect!  Surprise, though, this time it’ll work!  Strong female character shall declare she doesn’t like men, then she shall fight off rapist and then proceed to proposition the main character (oh believe me, more on that little faux pas later.)

The problem with Riddick wasn’t actually that these people did these things, but that there wasn’t a because.  (Besides, “because that’s just what you do!”) They just played their roles, and we watched.  We can’t answer why Dahl said she didn’t like men.  We can’t answer why Santana acts so big and tough when he’s clearly not.  We can’t say why the praying boy puts up with the gang of bounty hunters.  We can make it up – oh yes!  I can make up a million reasons for these things.  But here’s the problem, I’m not the one who was supposed to do that.  

Think of your favorite books.  Are you forced to come up with the character’s motivations for things they do?  Are you jumping through hoops to understand the character, or is the author offering you the viewing platform with a side of champagne?  Conversely, when you write, are you giving the reader a “because…” or are you making them figure it out for themselves?  Go back, find some character’s action and say to yourself “X did this because…” then go find the passage which explains it.

This is important.  Leaning on your tropes gives you shallow characters, which in turn gives you a shallow story.  I’ll admit, sometimes I’m just looking for explosions and man versus the world… but readers don’t only want the what.  They want the why.  Don’t make us fill it in for ourselves!

How to Start Over (in 1939348573948 easy steps.)

So you’re writing along in your manuscript and something just isn’t quite right.  There’s a plot twist missing, or someone is just giving too much information too quickly, but sadly, it takes you a few hundred words and several days of trying to choose the correct words, to realize it.

Yep.

This is where I am right now.  (well, where I was.) Ugh.  It’s the most obnoxious thing to be crawling along with a manuscript for three days only to realize that the reason you’re mired is way back at the beginning of the chapter.  Someone said something (or didn’t say something) or did something (in this case, didn’t do something) they should have done and darn it, you didn’t catch that.

It’s cool, fellow writer.  Here are a few steps to taking a deep breath and restarting yourself.

#1 Pinpoint the moment of breakitude.

When did the manuscript stop?  Where did it go off trail and start wandering, exactly?  Find the precise moment, either by reading through what you have Yes, I know your manuscript might be 100,000 words.  For all you know, it went half cocked at word 5623.  In Sword’s Blessings I went back and realized that I have just straight skipped an important beginning scene; my story was off track as of word -400 or so.  Later, I realized I’d gone off again at word 3000 or so.

#2 Figure out the solution.

There are three options:  Delete.  Add.  Change.  Sometimes it might actually be a combination, but generally that’s about the gist of it.  Actually, a lot of the time my trouble ends up being skipping a scene which makes everything make a heck of a lot more sense, not writing scenes that aren’t worthy (though that’s happened too.)  Determine your solution.

Delete is generally something which you are doing now.  

Add is usually something you have to go back and do.

Change is often the most obnoxious of the three.  Especially if changing something involving gender pronouns.  But you gotta do what you gotta do.

#3 Start a new document.

This might just be me, but if I have to go back and do some major mucking with a manuscript, I usually take a whole new document, or save as a whole new version of the manuscript, name it descriptively (Such as: Yet Another book 3 beginning) and go at it there.  That way, in my head, I haven’t actually gotten rid of any words.  I have not failed.  I’m just going to a new place, a new direction.  It also soothes my worry that perhaps the new version I write won’t be as good as the original version (almost never true) and I’ll lose the original forever if I delete it!  (oh noes!)

Hotel Transylvania, Plot, and Storytelling

Michael and I watched Hotel Transylvania last night.  I’d been seeing it off and on since it came out on DVD in various tester screens in the stores, and what I saw looked interesting and funny.

I was right.  It’s a lighthearted, cute and at times hilarious movie, and for a while I wondered why it hadn’t reached greater heights, like Shrek and Finding Nemo.

Once I started to think critically about it, it was easy to pinpoint the troubles, and they are very, very relevant to storytelling and pacing.  Here are the three big reasons that I think Hotel Transylvania, despite being a really great film to watch to detox off of the intensity of Game of Thrones, didn’t do as well as it could have.

#3 Wonky Pacing.

The story is adorable and we get the jist of the set up very quick.  Dracula has a little girl and he adores her.  Except, the set up is long.  Like, the opening of the movie is probably 5 to 10 minutes of Dracula adorably doting on his little girl, singing her songs, playing with her, teaching her to fly… but like I said, the jist is super simple.  They could have cut that set up in half, easy.

Slow wind ups do not an engrossing movie make.  We need to be dumped in to stories, akin to a child jumping on a slide.  Do you think it’s a good slide if you push off and then stop start your way down to the bottom?  Um, no, you want a fast, smooth ride which gets your heart pounding immediately.  (I miss being short enough that playground slides are still the best thing ever.)

This applies to your stories as well.  Make sure the intro gives only the information needed, and nothing more, and then, as they say, get to the monkey.

#2 Who and what is this story about?  

Finding Nemo did a great job of balancing between its characters.  We’d have Dad and Dori, then Nemo and the Fishtank.  It was easy to focus on the main characters.  Hotel Transylvania did a little wandering about it’s main characters.  See, for most of the movie I thought it was all about Dracula.  But by the end of the movie, it was more about his daughter and the love interest, and how they ‘zing’ed.  It had a little bit of a wandering eye.  Some scenes would just be about Dracula’s difficulty in letting his daughter grow up, some about the daughter experiencing love, and some wouldn’t have much to do with either of those themes.

I know it’s fun to put extra goodies in your work, and yeah, I’m totally guilty of it too.  But the fact is, to get a streamlined and fabulous book, you need to choose a character or two and stick with them.  Game of Thrones happens to choose about 20 characters, but you are not G.R.R. Martin and neither am I.  Valeria has 1 main perspective.  Pandora’s Ring has 2.  Sleight of Spirit has 4 (with about 5x the word count, though).  Keep an eye on it.

#1 Filler, Filler, Filler

Ok, I get it.  It was really funny for Dracula and Frankenstein, and daddy Werewolf to just jaw off for ten minutes.  I enjoyed it, I really did.  But at the same time, the story HALTED so that these characters could get off a ton of inside jokes.  The movie was only 90 minutes, so I understand why they did a bit of padding, but I think that they could have done a lot more for the plot by just kissing the jokes, introducing us to the one’s we’d need to know, and then getting on with it.

In our stories, I know those characters like to bounce off each other and have a ton of fun.  If I let my characters go, they get silly, they get melencholy, and I get great stuff out of that, BUT your story probably isn’t there just to be a time passer.  That’s how the book gets put down.  You have to hit fast, hit hard, and then keep hitting.  I know, I know, the books you read in literature class had a lot more time to beat around bushes and dinner parties, but the average reader isn’t looking for that these days.  So make sure you look at every scene, at every sentence, and ask yourself is this moving the plot forward?  

What movie did you guys love, but felt like it just didn’t live up to it’s own potential?

Quick Bites: To

As I am editing ‘Sword’s Blessings’, the sequel to ‘Pandora’s Ring’, I am thanking my editors for teaching as well as editing.

‘Pandora’s Ring’ was easily edited at first flush, but when you looked deeper it was kind of a mess.  There were a few reasons for it, none of them plotting/pacing/character problems, but just tiny little grammatical things which kept cropping up.

One of those was with the word ‘to’.

You see, ‘to’ can be used in a directional sense, as in “from there to here.”  or “give it to me.”  but it’s also part of the infinitive form of words, and that’s where the problem lies.  I have a tendency to use infinitive form in the wrong places. When you use the infinitive form of a word, you sometimes end up implying that what was going to happen… didn’t.

See here:

She turned to give him the paper.

I would guess that half of you read that just as I would read it.  As in she turned around and gave him the paper.  But I would also imagine that some of you were like “Ok… she turned to give him the paper… but what happened?  What stopped her?”

You see the trouble?  Half of your readers will understand exactly what you meant, half will be like “But WHAT?!  Why didn’t she just give it to him!?”

Therein lies the trouble.  Don’t kick your readers out of the narrative like that.  A 50% keep rate is not ok, so while directional ‘to’ and ‘to infinitive’ which is, in fact about to be followed up by a ‘but…’ are both ok… try and pare down on them otherwise.

Got it?  Great.  Michael will be on tomorrow with Tidbit Tuesday!

Learning From ‘The Hobbit’

Movie and books are two different creatures.

It’s like the difference between a 30 foot giant with no sense of balance and a cat with infinite agility.

The giant is more impressive, certainly.  But it’s also ungainly.  Clumsy.  It has to walk in a nice straight line or chances are it will trip over itself and come crashing down, bringing everything around it down as well.  The path needs to be clear and uncluttered.  Now, given all this, the giant can do amazing things, perform great feats of storytelling.  In the end, though, it’s restricted by it’s nature.  We can’t blame it for those shortcomings, only make room the best we can.

Now, a cat is fine too.  It’s small, more agile.  A cat can wiggle it’s way through cracks and crinnes the giant would trip over.  The cat can explore alleys and byways which the giant has to barrel past or risk being entangled.  The cat isn’t exactly larger than life, and occasionally it will get itself lost, but it’s a sight more graceful than the giant.

In this metaphor, the giant is movies, and the cat is books.  A movie is huge, and striking, and powerful, but in the end it’s clumsy.  It’s difficult to gracefully put more than one plot arch in a movie, whereas books routinely have several.  However, while a great book can relay an awful lot from the writing, in the end, seeing it on the big screen is a totally different experience.

For instance? Thorin? 10x hotter than ever in a million years imagined.

Like, really, totally different.  Incomparable, even.  And that’s my point in this post.  A lot of people do a lot of complaining when a movie comes out, and they’ve made a deviation from the book. For instance, in The Hobbit, Bilbo and Thorin never have that awkward blossoming bromance going on.  And there certainly isn’t any overarching crazy white Orc (well, unless you’re a nerd and know that he’s part of the greater back story, if kind of resurrected).

Being a writer, one might think I’d be offended by this kind of restructuring and even canon changing.  Oddly, I was completely comfortable, and even admiring of it.  The fact is that if they had done the Hobbit verbatim  the first movie would have been disjointed.  It wouldn’t have had a solid arc, just the beginning of an arch that stopped midway, like a stone sticking in the air mid throw.  That would drive you crazy in real life, it drives us nutsoid in a plot arc.  We would have walked out going ‘what was the point of that?  It just sort of fizzled out…’

By inserting a distrust between Bilbo and Thorin, a need for a solid and undeniable proof of Bilbo’s ability to fufill is role in the company, we get a really solid beginning, middle, and ending.  Azog supplements that pull of trust.

How can you use this little epiphany for your writing though?  Simple.  Sometimes you think you’ve got a cat when you’ve got a giant.  Sometimes your cat turns into a giant on accident, or you just want to write a cat, but you’re making the cat too big.  The point is that we see very clearly how Peter Jackson and his writers pared away, pushed, pulled, added, and subtracted in order to get a very clear story arch.  Study that, and then emulate it.  Pare away your random little thread about the baker boy.  Cut out that aside about how your main character once frolicked in the rain with a horse and that that it would be grand to be a flower shop owner, especially if he’s now aiming to be an investment banker and hasn’t cared about flowers or rain in years.  (Ok, I can see a point where that might still be made relevant, but I think you get the idea.)

Peter Jackson had to trim the fat and make the hedges nice and neat for his giant of a film to be released.  We’re working with cats here, yes, but sometimes they’re big cats, and we still have to make sure they fit down the alleys we send them.

Because Darn It, I Like It!!

Towards the end of Nanowrimo, I was needing words, and thus began to write a scene which I knew would never in a million years make it into the book which would come out of the editing.  The character is handed a sheet of questions and writes the answers down, one by one, thinking about the various ways he could answer them and how those answer impact him.

And truth be told, it’s a boring, unmarketable scene.  It’s not saying anything new, and to be honest it’s rehashing a lot of stuff we already know.

But here’s the thing: I loved writing that scene.  It was so much fun.  I was writing the first question out when I realized that this scene had no movement whatsoever.  But the answer to that question was already in my mind, and I really wanted to see what all would come out of this character’s mouth/pen.  So I kept writing.

Now, putting aside the fact that Nano goes for quantity and not quality, I still would have written this scene, solely based on the fact that I was having so much fun writing it.  I actually do it a lot – little outrigger scenes that get stuck in my head, contribute nothing to the story I’m writing, but give me the giggles.  So I’ll write entire pages because darn it, I like it!  My motto is that no word is ever wasted, no sentence a complete throwaway.  Why?  Well…

#3 Practice with putting words together

No scene is wasted, because as soon as you are putting the words to the page, you’re practicing your writing.  You are reminding your neural pathways how to type, how a sentence is structured, a certain word spelled.  This is more important than you might realize, because it’s easy to get rusty, even on something as deeply ingrained as writing.  Maybe not “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL ‘YOU’ ANY MORE, HALP!!!” but your writing can definitely lose a bit of flow with a month or two of not practicing.  Your voice might be a touch jilted, or you just plain don’t have the focus to write (which is definitely part of practicing writing; practicing focus).

#2 Character or World Development

With the scene I was describing above, the main character was not a stranger to me.  But despite that, he still thought a few things which surprised me; how he felt about his brother, how reluctant he was to disclose his situation.  These are things I had an inkling of, I mean, the character is in my subconscious  but I had not yet had the chance to write those vague thoughts down.  This gave me that chance.  The other important thing the ‘useless’ scene gave me was the questionnaire which every student entering the Institute is given upon entrance.  Given that a good 50%-75% of the story revolves around this institute, and nearly every character has been a student there at some point in their lives, it’s kind of a good thing to know.  While I may never use the scene itself, I will very likely use that information some time in the series.

#3 That ‘useless’ scene might surprise you!

The biggest reason to keep writing on a scene that you feel is useless is that the scene you are thinking is never going to see the light of day, might darn well.  I once wrote a scene between two characters just for the heck of it.  Their dialogue was in my head and darn it, I saw a scene I liked and wanted to write down.  So I did.  Now it turns out, that scene is going to be an important part of one of the later books of the Athele Series, introducing and grounding a few new characters who have an impact on everything.  That useless scene I just wrote for fun turned out to be pretty useful after all!

So go ahead.  Write that supposedly useless scene.  It might surprise you!